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Wave Your Flag

Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

by Rabbi Elazar Muskin

May 11, 2010 | 5:04 pm

Anyone who has chaperoned high school students knows it can add a few gray hairs. I experienced this very phenomenon a number of years ago while serving as the
rabbinic leader on March of the Living, the annual gathering that takes youth to Poland to commemorate Holocaust Memorial week.

It was Shabbat morning in Warsaw, and I was assigned to lead 40 students on a half-hour walk to the only functioning synagogue in the city, the Nozyk Shul.

When we arrived, there were more than 1,000 kids, all dressed alike, inside and outside of the shul. I needed to choose a well-defined spot where all the kids would meet once services ended. I scouted out the area and noticed a large sign in English and Polish on the building next to the shul that read: The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation Kindergarten. Everyone in my group saw the sign, and it was an easy place to remember.

I took my time exiting the shul after the service, certain that it would be simple to find the kids. When I finally came out, I couldn’t believe my eyes: All the other group leaders used the same spot, and more than 1,000 kids stood underneath that sign.

It took a number of searches, counts and recounts until I found all 40 students. Had we brought along our own banner to gather around, it would have made the process easier on the students and myself.

I wasn’t the first person in history to encounter this problem. In our Torah reading, Moses tackles this very issue when he conducts the second census of the Jewish people. The late 20th century Torah sage, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, wonders why there was a need for this second census when the first was taken only a few months before, as recounted in Parashat Ki Tisa.

Rabbi Kaminetzky suggests that the second census established a new way of viewing the Jewish people. For the first time, each tribe had its own flag: “Each man shall encamp by his banner according to the insignias of their father’s household” (Leviticus 2:2). Up until this moment the tribes did not have separate standards or emblems. The people were one unit.

What purpose, Rabbi Kaminetzky wonders, was served by separating the Jewish people into different groups with distinct emblems, colors and standards? Isn’t the goal of the Jewish people to be “One People”?

Weren’t the flags counter-productive, emphasizing diversity rather than unity? Furthermore, if they were so important, why didn’t we have flags immediately following the Exodus from Egypt?

In a brilliant analysis, Rabbi Kaminetzky says that Judaism promotes unity, but unity should never eliminate creative individuality. The only time unity and individuality can co-exist, however, is when they share the same focus. At this moment in our history the focus was the mishkan, the tabernacle, the first synagogue of our people. Everyone shared that goal and worked to see it thrive with every Jew offering his or her individual talents.

We can now appreciate why, up until now, tribal flags weren’t instituted. Until we had a mishkan identifying our faith and common destiny, the individualism of each tribe was unacceptable. Now, with the mishkan, the shared goal became clear so that individuality could be encouraged.

Rabbi Kaminetzky’s insight is more than simple exegesis; rather, he is offering us a view rarely heard. Unity of the Jewish people can occur only if we share a common destiny and mission. When we can apply varied and different talents to one common goal we, in turn, can enhance that goal.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

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